Understanding Discernment Counseling

Teodora Ghiur on Dec 01, 2021 in Relationship and Family

What is Discernment Counseling?

Initially developed by Bill Doherty, discernment counseling is a type of brief couples therapy aimed at people considering a relationship ending but are unsure of their decision. It is not uncommon that, in a romantic relationship, one of the partners wants to end the partnership while the other wants to preserve it. Or perhaps both of them believe they are better off separated but cannot take the right step in this decision.

Discernment counseling helps both parties reach a conclusion that benefits them or helps them work through the issues that cause them relationship-related confusion.

What makes discernment counseling different from the standard couples therapy is that it is explicitly targeted at couples considering separation. They are also referred to as “mixed agenda” couples, in which one of the partners leans towards separation, and the other one wants to stay together. Discernment counseling has a set of techniques and interventions that help couples decide on their romantic partnership. How does this approach work and who can benefit from this type of therapeutic intervention?

How can Individuals and Couples Benefit from Discernment Counseling?

Many couples find themselves in various difficulties with their relationship. They might find that they lost the initial spark, have personality-based incompatibilities, or feel trapped in the relationship.

It is not uncommon that one of the partners sees these problems as unsolvable and wants a way out, while the other intends to work them out. If this is the case, discernment counseling intervenes through various methods and techniques by offering both partners multiple solutions and opportunities to work their issues out.

Partners in relationship difficulties benefit from this type of intervention by obtaining more clarity over their situation. They can also gain more awareness of the causes of their problems and consider potential solutions that can repair their relationship. Other benefits of this counseling type include:

  • Learning to communicate better with the partner

  • Expressing one’s needs more clearly and empathically

  • Viewing the reality of the relationship from the other person’s shoes

  • Figuring out potential causes of the arguments between the two partners

  • Considering the alternative of breaking up or staying together.

What can Discernment Counseling Help With?

When a couple is on the brink of separation or divorce, discernment counseling can help them figure out whether they can work on their relationship issues or if separation is a better alternative. As with any psychological problem, it is hard for someone to have clarity over their reality when they are presented with multiple and complex issues at once. Such is the case of a romantic relationship, which is a co-creation between two partners. In this case, the complexity of the problems can be even more profound since both partners project their own needs and unhappiness on the relationship.

Discernment counseling can help couples with the following aspects:

  1. Support them in reflecting how they are individually contributing to problems in the couple - this means encouraging each partner to look at how they create frustration and disagreement in the relationship.

  2. Bring clarity over the most significant issues contributing to one or both partners’ preference to leave the relationship. For example, if one partner wants more space to explore their interests but the other one cannot offer it to them, counseling can help find a space where each of the two partners can compromise in order to solve the issue.

  3. Find a potential solution to the couple’s indecision. Whether this means carrying on with the relationship or taking separate ways, discernment counseling can help couples have more clarity over the best solution in their case.

How does Discernment Counseling Work?

At its core, discernment counseling can be conceptualized as an assessment process that helps couples figure out the following action steps in their partnership. It works by taking a careful inventory of the couple’s ongoing issues and disagreements, listening to each partner’s wants and needs, and supporting them in reaching a mutual decision.

The most common solutions that are reached within discernment counseling are:

  • Deciding to end the relationship completely

  • Taking a 6-months period in which both partners work actively at resolving the conflicts between them

  • Postponing the decision until a more suitable time is found.

Regardless of the outcome of the counseling interventions, couples are encouraged to express their point of view, voice their concerns and state their needs from their partner. Many issues in romantic partnerships stem from people’s inability to communicate effectively and empathise with each other’s needs. Therefore, therapeutic interventions such as discernment counseling offer couples the opportunity to communicate and assert their needs clearly, while listening to their partner’s view of things.

What Happens in Discernment Counseling?

After scheduling a session with a discernment counselor, couples are invited for an initial session to discuss various aspects of their relationship. The counselor might ask questions like:

  • Was there any attempt at fixing the relationship in the past?

  • If there was, what exactly has been done?

  • What happened between the two partners that makes one of them want to leave the relationship?

  • Are there any children that may be affected by the partners’ decision to separate?

  • Can the partners recall the best times they experienced in the context of the relationship?

  • What actions are the two partners willing to take in order to fix their disagreements?

Once the therapist obtains this information from both partners, they then meet with each person individually to discuss their conclusion. Partners are invited to reflect on their motives for their decision to stay or leave the relationship, as well as on the relationship’s potential to be fixed. Afterward, the couple meets again with the counselor to discuss the conclusions drawn from both partners’ points of view. If a conclusion is not reached, the counselor can schedule further sessions to allow the couple to reflect and draw insights from the discussed material.

How to Find a Discernment Counselor?

If you are looking for a discernment counselor, you can start your search here at TherapyDen. On the advanced search page you can select Discernment Counseling from the Treatment Techniques dropdown menu. You can use other online resources and websites to look for someone located in your area as well. If in-person therapy is not a requirement for you and your partner, online counseling may provide more options. Take your time to research an experienced discernment counselor, and do not be afraid to look for recommendations and advice from people you know.

Alternatively, specific platforms can also put you in touch with specialists in this area, so don’t hesitate to contact these types of services if they match your needs.

One thing to keep in mind is that choosing your discernment counselor is entirely up to you and your partner. Therefore, ensure that you have good compatibility with your counselor and you always feel heard and valued.

Teodora Ghiur
Staff Writer for TherapyDen

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